Photographic Half-Lives

The Xiaos have always been camera-shy. On a recent spring-clean of my camera roll, I noted the proportion of photos on my phone that were of human subjects — a minority, and vanishingly few of those were of myself. From these, I could cull only a handful of earnest, smiling snapshots — mostly instances where I’d been caught unawares or otherwise managed to flash a grimace that seemed real enough because it hadn’t had time to go awkward and pose-y. In the rest, I’m screwing up my face, crossing my eyes, making transparent attempts at goofy nonchalance. If I can intercept my own photo-ugliness — if I can make it a joke before it makes a joke of me — I’ll have won some small victory.

This is my exit strategy before the blank, acquisitive maw of a camera lens. My parents have their own — my mother, having mastered her angles despite being camera-shy, has learned to swivel her head so as to avoid the unflattering, flattening full-frontal; she tucks in her chin to avoid a shot up the nostrils. She does not smile, usually, and even then it is a tight-lipped, careful uptick of the corners of her mouth. My dad, more apathetic than really averse, makes do with a vacant stare into some point beyond the lens. A smile plays about his lips — or maybe the natural set of his face just happens to be an expression of abstracted amusement.

When I comment on the paucity of family photo albums in our house, my parents are quick to tell me that photos used to be an Occasion, and that maybe they’re still of that mindset — then, I think of the few photographs I’ve seen of them in their youth. They’re always pictures of different permutations of family members — the whole family, just the kids, a parent and a kid — as though more bodies per photo meant the greater bang for your buck. No one is smiling with their teeth. Everyone looks serious and a bit bewildered.

On recent trips to China, both my parents brought back pictures of photographs presented to them by friends and family members. I was particularly struck by a photo of my mother with a dance troupe of other second-grade girls, all of them wearing hats with floppy brims. ‘We were supposed to be white ducks,’ she texted me. If I squinted, I thought, I could see that the brims were bills. With some imagination, I figured them to be orangey-yellow.

Mostly, though, I was drawn to my mom’s small face.

In the photograph, she stands in a row of six girls. She’s smiling sweetly. ‘More than a handful of people told me that you look just like me,’ my mom tells me later. I search my mother’s face for signs of me, evidence of our shared inheritance. I don’t believe I look just like her, though I think I detect traces of myself in the particular set of our jaws and eyes. Examining a photo of my 26-year-old father, I have an easier time convincing myself of our alikeness — we have similar mouths and noses.

Between these two photos, I stitch together a composite of myself. I’m reminded of those make-your-own glyphs I used to do in elementary school, wherein we were presented with the blank, moony outline of a face and told to populate it with certain features depending on our responses to questions like, ‘do you have a pet?’ If ‘yes,’ draw yourself a smiley mouth; if ‘no,’ draw yourself a frown. (Do you have your mother’s pollen allergies? If ‘yes,’ draw yourself her nose; if ‘no,’ draw your father’s.) The idea being that, after you’d completed your drawing, you could read from it your own biography.

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I sometimes wish that we were one of those rabid ancestry.com families, all of us bent on tracing the thin red thread of our ancestry beyond Maoist China, back into the Qing. As it is, all I know is that generations of my family seem to have made their home in Shanghai. There are stories of itinerant tailors in Vladivostok and salt merchants on the Silk Road; there’s a story, too, of a fortune lost to the Red Army. These histories tempt me to seek out others before I realize that I’ve yet to exhaust the store of family histories already available to me — I think I could be a better granddaughter, could learn my written and spoken Mandarin so as to be able to record the stories that exist only in my grandparents’ memories.

The bulk of our family’s material history has likely been lost to the ravages of time and poor bureaucratic record-keeping. For now, that’s okay. I wonder how much I’d really get from photos of long-gone ancestors. After a point, genealogy becomes a game of chasing half-lives — with each generation, the shared genetic material halved once over and shared among twice as many strangers, nearing but never attaining asymptotic zero.

This makes me wonder if there’s some emergent quality of DNA that makes me essentially Xiao, if there’s something to the uncle who slaps me on the back at family reunions, peers into my face, and tells me I’ve got a Xiao forehead. Maybe this tincture of Xiao-ness is what family names in patrilineal societies try to codify, what heirlooms attempt to embody, what film and photography fashion into aesthetic objects. And maybe this thin vein of shared connection acts as a kind of mirror in a time and place where self-absorption is the norm but self-reflection feels far rarer. Xiao-ness — that amorphous, indescribable thing — is an immigrant’s work ethic, my grandmother’s penchant for the perfume of chrysanthemum blossoms, my grandfather’s mastery of the calligraphy brush. It is the ultimate glyph.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to convince myself of the utility of frequent and enthusiastic photo-documentation. ‘For posterity,’ I used to joke before posing for photographs. I meant it then in irony, but am learning to appreciate it as real motivation. The generations following ours will have the peculiar task of unearthing social media accounts and smartphone camera rolls; taking the long view, the least I could do is leave behind a few semi-earnest selfies.

–Madelyne Xiao researches marine invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History and tweets at @madxiaodisease

Family photograph courtesy of Xuefen Wang